New protocol boosts wireless Web access

Some of the world's largest telecommunications firms and handset makers gathered in San Francisco this week to promote a technology that allows Internet content to be tailored for display on mobile telephones, pagers and other wireless devices.

Called the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), the technology provides a common platform for developing Web content for access by devices with smaller screens, lower connection speeds and less memory than traditional computers like PCs.

The market for WAP-enabled devices is expected to mushroom after the first products become commercially available later this year, according to market research firm Strategy Analytics of England. The firm predicts that as many as 525 million WAP-enabled devices will ship in the US and Western Europe by 2003.

Members of an industry association called the WAP Forum announced this week an updated version of the protocol, called WAP version 1.1. The new protocol provides better support for international markets, a memory caching feature that will help compensate for lower connection speeds, and a feature that will allow products and services to be tested for interoperability.

The first mobile phones supporting the new protocol are expected to ship in Europe before the end of this year and in the US by early next year, officials from Nokia and Ericsson said today.

"Having a handset that's WAP-enabled is going to get you information while you're on the move," said Alina Sargiss, a market research analyst with Dataquest. "It's not designed for Web surfing, but for pulling information off the Internet."

WAP-enabled devices won't just be aimed at consumers. The technology is suitable for use in an intranet environment, allowing mobile workers to access information from corporate Web sites when they are on the road.

"You will see commercial deployment of WAP-enabled products coming out in rapid succession in the third and fourth quarters," predicted Chuck Parrish, vice chairman of the WAP Forum.

Ericsson today showed a handheld computer that it claims will be the first commercially available product to support the new protocol. Called the MC218, the device has a small keyboard set in a clamshell design, and allows users to send and receive e-mail and view content on the Web.

The device will launch in the UK, Sweden and possibly other European countries in about two weeks, said Daniel Coole, a senior technical director with Ericsson.

Eventually, handset vendors expect to offer WAP-enabled telephones at the same price as regular mobile telephones, said Lauri Hirvonen, senior manager of customer services with Nokia's Wireless Data group.

For WAP to really take off, content providers will first have to be persuaded to rewrite their Web sites in a format called Wireless Markup Language (WML), a programming language related to XML (Extensible Markup Language). Officials here said the momentum behind WAP is sufficient to drive the transition.

The idea is that companies will still offer standard HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) Web pages for PC users, and offer a subset of that content in WML for mobile access, Ericsson's Coole said.

The growth of WAP also depends on manufacturers, content providers and telecommunications providers working together to ensure interoperability between their products. The need for a cross-industry effort was part of the motivation behind forming the WAP Forum.

More information about the WAP Forum and its members can be found on the Internet, at http://www.wapforum.org/

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James Niccolai

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